A Tsunami’s Stone

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Hanōkizawa-san (left) and myself at the Yoshihama Tsunami-ishi

It seems remarkably privileged to say, but it can be a bit much to immerse yourself in tragedy. Even Japanese tsunami survivors are shrouded in it, because everyone on the Sanriku coast of Tōhoku lost something, someone, or both. I don’t know how real journalists do it. I suppose it helps to have some distance — a lack of a personal connection surely helps. But if I’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s a healthy appreciation for people who spend weeks face-to-face with horrible things. After only a few days in Kesennuma, I’d reached a bit of a saturation point. But it just so happened that on Tuesday, we had an appointment in Yoshihama, about an hour north of Kesennuma.

In the years since the tsunami, I have looked for stories that connected me to the landscape from across the Pacific. Stories of loss and recovery abounded. But for the most part, they were all so temporal, so pegged with the timeliness we have come to expect from journalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it is what it is. Turns out, we want to read things laden with meaning in the here and now, and that’s what journalism provides. There’s a reason most articles are just a few hundred words: and it has to do with the desire to consume one moment before moving on to the next.

I discovered a handful of stories about “tsunami stones,” some of which date back millennia, and for the most part, served as warnings regarding past Sanriku tsunamis. The meaning within the frame of a news article is obvious; here’s this old thing that everyone forgot about that warned of exactly the type of event that necessitated the article in the first place. Timely, meaningful: exactly the type of thing we like to read about.

But I began to wonder if the stories written were only telling one side of the narrative, whether there wasn’t something deeper that would require a more in-depth telling, unconstrained by the moment itself.

Enter the Yoshihama tsunami stone.

I can’t give too much of the story I plan to write away just yet, but on 3.11.11, Yoshihama suffered only one fatality while its neighbors to the north and south were hit much harder. In other words, Tuesday was good.

This is Hanōkizawa-san, one of the discoverers of the Yoshihama stone, and myself at the the locals call tsunami-ishi. I’m looking forward to telling its story.

 

What Remains

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Obā-san two and a half years before she died

Everybody dies. But not everyone dies in a natural disaster. Still, this does not make that that life more valuable, or special; nor am I made unique by relation to it. I’ve told myself this, over and over since 3.11.11 in order to resist giving in to the worst kind of narcissistic writing instincts.

But unlike dying at home in bed, in a hospital, or even in war; in a natural disaster the conditions surrounding the death, or fate for that matter, are often unclear. 24-hour media overloads you, by design, floods your mind with information. But never the information you want. That’s what it was like on 3.11.11 for my family. Imagine being halfway across the world, turning on the television, and seeing only a glimpse of a tsunami hitting your home town before the footage switches to something else even more horrifying before it cuts to yet something else before swapping with a talking head in a cool, air-conditioned studio. Do this, and you are now empathizing with my father. There is no information; the phones are down and so is the power. No one is reporting from Tōhoku; rather, they are reporting from above it. It will be days before you learn whether your loved ones survived, before you learn the tsunami took your mother.

We always had a rough idea of what happened to Obā-san, but I felt the need to distill this idea into the fact. Why I felt the need to do so has been the question I’ve struggled to answer on this trip. Because it makes a better, more complete story? If so, then I become the worst kind of profiteer – the kind who makes good on the suffering of others.

You should know that I found what I was looking for. But I’m still trying to answer that question about why I needed to know in the first place.

 

 

 

Turn. Again.

IMG_4458Pictured here to the left is the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet (of the Pacific Ocean.) It was so-named because on his last journey, Captain Cook tried to navigate it in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, but was confounded by the tides and shallow depth. Which caused his explorers to turn, and turn, and turn yet again before finally realizing they probably weren’t getting to the Atlantic that way anytime soon. Hence the name. Turnagain.

I’ve hiked some portion of the mountains on the north side of the arm (the photo is taken looking west.) And at one point, I stopped and stood in the sunshine, three thousand feet above the arm, and imagined an 18th century mariner’s disappointment at what he saw before making one last accursed turn. It’s a useful metaphor for optimism (imagine what we’ll find!), pessimism (why bother?), or pragmatism (might as well try and see what happens), depending on your bent. I’m in the latter camp, if you wondered.

Somewhere way to the right of my photo, far beyond the frame, is Japan. And to be honest, I’m not sure what awaits. I have an idea of the stories that I’ll write as a result of the trip. But it’s a struggle for me to quantify why, exactly, it’s important enough for me to leave my family, my job, and a lot of unfinished everythings to go write about a disaster that occurred seven years ago. But I suppose the best answer I can come up with is this:

I had to.

The stories I’m going to write have burned a hole in me for months, and in one case, years. Look, I get a lot of ideas about things I think I want to write about. Thankfully, I can most of them because they’re crappy ideas. But others stick around until it feels like I might actually go to pieces if I don’t get them down on paper. Sure, I’m deeply connected to the tsunami. And while I respect that personal experience of a thing is more than enough to justify artistic engagement with it, this time I need to do something besides rely on my own memories, read books, and research online. I need to see, to touch, and most of all, to feel the effects of the tsunami in order to feel like I’m doing what happened in 2011 any justice.

And so, I will turn from what it’s in front of me to that which is behind, around, and within; I’ll turn. Again. And I’m going to look as hard as I can for answers I maybe didn’t even know existed. We’ll see what happens.